UK Politics

Selfie tourists puzzled by Big Ben's new look

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Media captionBig Ben scaffolding has taken some tourists by surprise

It's one of the world's most instantly-recognisable tourist attractions.

But the Elizabeth Tower - commonly known as Big Ben - is barely recognisable at the moment, covered in scaffolding with just one clock face visible.

And it's leaving some of the millions of tourists who flock there for a photo every year a bit confused.

Walk up the steps out of Westminster tube station and you'll usually have to push past holidaymakers staring up at the 96-metre tower, home to Britain's most famous bell.

No surprise that according to the Visit London website, it's the capital's number-one hotspot for selfies.

But with the summer holidays approaching, tourists are realising that some of their holiday snaps are not going to look quite as they had hoped.

"It's a little disappointing, it's all covered up," says Dan Ross, from Utah.

How would he describe it?

"Scaffold. I do construction, and I've seen a lot of scaffold, but I thought Big Ben would look a little different than that."

Image caption Dan and Kate Ross's Big Ben selfie

His wife Kate was perplexed.

"We were looking for Big Ben but we couldn't find it - well there it is.

"In sixth grade I drew a picture of Big Ben - it was something I wanted to see. Maybe next time."

A woman from New Zealand was similarly confused.

"I didn't even realise it was supposed to be Big Ben," she says. "I thought it was an apartment block or something."

Image caption This family from New York had "no idea" they'd have scaffolding in their selfie

Sadia, visiting from New York with her family, had "no idea" she'd be confronted by what is said to be the largest example of scaffolding of its type in the world.

"People told me that when you get off at Westminster station, you look outside and there you see Big Ben," the 38-year-old says.

"I looked at it and I was like 'hmmm, it doesn't look like Big Ben'.

"I was a little disappointed, but I understand."

Image caption Lee and Hayley Holden get their scaffolding selfie

Hayley and Lee Holden are visiting from Liverpool.

"I couldn't see it," Hayley says. "He was going 'there's Big Ben, I said 'where', it wasn't until we walked around and saw the clock. It's a lot different from when I first remember seeing it when I was about eight."

Lee is looking on the bright side.

"You can still see the clock so that's good," he says. "It's a hell of a lot of work going into it."

Image caption Tourists still try to find Big Ben's best angle

Krista Brka from Latvia was also upbeat.

"It's still good enough, as long as we can see it," said the 27-year-old.

Image caption Krista Brka, and Diniga Ramanausta

But not all tourists are as understanding.

"I actually had one lady that cried," said tour bus driver Andy Cousins.

"She had come all the way to London just to see Big Ben and it was in this state and she was in tears.

"It's a massive icon for London, and they've only got one clock face that's open, so they are very very upset at the moment."

What does he say to the disappointed sightseers?

"Google pictures of Big Ben and you'll get the perfect picture."

Image caption Naresh Bafna from India said he was happy with how the tower looked

Behind the structure Mr Cousins described as "the Transformer", the clock mechanism is being dismantled and repaired, masonry repaired, a leaking roof fixed and a lift installed.

And perhaps all that scaffolding could become an attraction in its own right.

Placed end to end, the 24,000 components would stretch from Westminster to Carlisle, and when the final piece was slotted in at a special ceremony last month, House of Commons director general Ian Ailles described the structure as "an absolute masterpiece of engineering".

"I'm sure some visitors are a bit disappointed not to see the clock tower itself, on the other hand of course this work simply had to be done," Tessa Blundy, of Parliament's architecture and heritage team, told the BBC.

"I'm afraid they have just to appreciate rather a special scaffolding tower instead at the moment."

Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, a member of the House of Commons Commission which is responsible for maintenance matters, says the building also needs to be updated to meet fire and safety regulations.

What would he say to the disgruntled tourists?

"I would say to them that if we didn't have the scaffolding up, there's a real risk that in the not too distant future, something dramatic might happen to the Elizabeth Tower. putting the tower out of operation perhaps for a much longer period."

And they'd better get used to it - because once the tower is repaired, it will be time to restore the rest of the Parliamentary estate - a multibillion pound project Mr Brake said would be on a similar scale to the 2012 London Olympics.

"So I'm afraid that probably for quite a time to come, people visiting will have the odd piece of scaffolding in their selfie," he added.